BWW Reviews: Rousing BILLY ELLIOT Earns Worthy Cheers in L.A.
Let's just say this right off the barre, er, bat: BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL—the Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of the immensely enjoyable 2000 film—is, well... frikkin' fantastic! With the show's national tour finally stopped in Los Angeles, Southern California theatergoers can now experience this fun, rousing musical during its five-week engagement at the Pantages Theatre through May 13.
Once in a while, a show like this comes along that, at its core, is so utterly moving and genuinely delightful that even its blatant flaws—quite unforgivable in any other show—seem to blow away like a rolling hillside fog. So despite an "only-okay" songbook (by Brit royalty Sir Elton John, no less) and a wobbly narrative structure (perhaps a necessity to compact the film's much-better told story), BILLY ELLIOT manages to win over everyone to the point of enthusiastic ovation, and—gosh darn it—it's certainly well-deserved.
Winningly charming and unabashedly buoyant, BILLY ELLIOT—which jetéd away with 10 fairly well-deserved Tony Award wins including Best Musical back in 2009—is a smile-inducing, pleasingly-staged musical that props up and salutes our young, often-misunderstood artistic mavericks, inducing us to cheer these kids on to beat the odds and realize their dreams (even if those around them initially do not support them).
While it doesn't quite best the film that inspired it—even with the direct involvement of the film's director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Lee Hall, who are both on hand in this adaptation as director and book writer/lyricist, respectively—BILLY ELLIOT's stage incarnation still retains the can-do spirit of the original and is, ultimately, a really entertaining, well-executed show.
Sticking fairly faithful to its cinematic source material, BILLY ELLIOT exalts the story of Billy (played by the magnificent Ty Forhan at the Opening Night performance), a wide-eyed, artistically-gifted young boy toiling in County Durham, a small coal-mining community in England. The show opens at the dawn of the infamous UK coal miners' strike in the mid-1980s, an event that weighs heavily on the minds—and pocketbooks—of the town's citizens, particularly Billy's dad (Rich Hebert) and older brother Tony (Cullen R. Titmas).
Living under modest means, the two men, together with Billy's senile but spunky Grandma (the hilarious Patti Perkins), are trying to raise Billy as best they can, necessitated by the untimely passing of Billy's mother (Kat Hennessy), whom the boy was very close to while she was alive (her calming ghost visage appears to Billy every so often to offer words of encouragement).
To keep Billy occupied after school, his father forces him to take boxing lessons at the local community center. One serendipitous day, Billy is punished with the task of staying behind after boxing to hand the center's keys to the surly Mrs. Wilkinson (the awesome Leah Hocking), who runs an ad-hoc ballet class for young girls just steps from the boxing ring.
With his curiosity for dance piqued, Billy quickly makes the risky decision to keep attending ballet classes—in secret, of course, unless he wants to be deemed a "poof." To admit his love of ballet to his family and neighbors would no doubt go against everything his burly, blue-collar surroundings would allow for a young boy. Besides Mrs. Wilkinson—who immediately recognizes Billy's natural talent for dance—the only other person wholeheartedly supportive of Billy's secret lessons is his openly-flamboyant best friend Michael (played on Opening Night by fabulous scene-stealer Cameron Clifford), who seems to have an unapologetic penchant for cross-dressing.
Meanwhile, the town is embroiled in a bitter, often violent war between the local police (who, probably not by coincidence, slightly resemble Keystone cops) and the rowdy coal mine strikers (with Billy's dad and brother at the head of the opposing charge). As circumstances—and musical theater—often dictate, Billy's dad eventually discovers him wearing ballet flats instead of boxing gloves, and vehemently forbids Billy's further participation in dancing.
Fortunately, realizing that Billy's talent should not be squelched, Mrs. Wilkinson strikes a deal with Billy to continue private one-on-one lessons on the down low for free—in the hopes that Billy's dad will, at some point, stop letting his "working class pride" get in the way and have a change of heart once he sees Billy acing his planned audition with the Royal Ballet School in London.
An almost three-hour musicalized infomercial that celebrates the joy of individual self-expression—that is, being exactly who you are, no matter how quirky others may judge you to be—BILLY ELLIOT leaves hardly any room for self-doubt or societal judgment to ever take over. It's a great, uplifting message, delivered with some of the most spirited dancing you'll find among such a young cast. And, surprisingly, there's very little saccharine in the way it spreads this message, even in such a tried-and-true feel-good show. That's a tough task, especially for a story that's standing on the shoulders of a pre-teen protagonist.
And, wow, what an accomplished, ridiculously talented pre-teen he is! Front-and-center as the title character, little blond wünderkind Forhan (who shares the role alternately with Kylend Hetherington, Zach Manske and J.P. Viernes) literally—and figuratively—soars. Whether spinning or leaping or cracking jokes or having a musicalized emotional breakthrough, Forhan embodies Billy with, to borrow RuPaul's nomenclature, a sincere "realness" that is years ahead of his actual age (or the age his character is supposed to be). He truly wows you.
Together with his other young co-stars, particularly comic genius Clifford (who shares his role with Jacob Zelonky), BILLY ELLIOT is populated with some of the most entertaining young people ever crammed on one stage. It's a staggering sight to behold, and the audience can't help but stand up and cheer boisterously—without a single ounce of aww shucks pity claps coming into play. This ain't no elementary school musical, people.
It also helps that the adult actors in BILLY ELLIOT are just as formidable. As the ghost of Billy's dead mother, Hennessy is a beautiful, tear-inducing apparition. Hebert deftly straddles macho gruffness with huggable vulnerability while, as his older, more aggressive son Tony, Titmas instills both fear and empathy. Perkins is a reliably gifted comic with each of her appearances. Hocking's aging dance diva Mrs. Wilkinson is both a giddy pleasure to watch and emotionally riveting in her almost surrogate-mothering scenes with Forhan. Don't you wish all young people had someone like that in their life to believe in their talents that much? And just try resisting the urge to smile during her feather-enhanced disco-fied solo spotlight!
And although the more conservative viewers—especially parents with young children—may have found it objectionable, I'm glad the production decided not to shy away from the generous (but-normal-for-the-UK) usage of cussing, even coming from, yes, the mouths of young babes. (The sound of Billy or Michael yelling "shit" is jolting but ultimately appropriately funny and not at all just played for gratuitous easy laughs). Even hearing grandma's foul mouth is a frikkin' hoot.
While this isn't so much a singer's showcase, the dancing, as expected, is nothing short of phenomenal. From the silly fun of production numbers "Shine," "Born to Boogie," and "Expressing Yourself" (the song where Clifford, rightly, steals the show) to the awesome dueling dancing factions in "Solidarity," this company can really move! Billy's gravity-defying Pas de Deux with his adult self (Maximilien A. Baud) is just plain gorgeous. And by the time Billy sings—and then dances the bejeesus out of—"Electricity," you want to leap to your feet and smother the kid with hugs. Yeah, it's that enjoyable.
Prior to seeing the stage version on Opening Night in Los Angeles, I wanted to reacquaint myself with how much I loved the superb movie. It's a good thing I did, because the film reminded me just how fortuitously captivating BILLY ELLIOT's story is, especially lately in the midst of a renewed focus on the triggers of adolescent bullying. And in a bit of foreshadowing on my part, seeing the film again also prepared me for the onslaught of thick, albeit, semi-authentic British accents in the stage show that, frankly at least for me, could have used some subtitles.
The one departure from the film that disappointed me a bit (but only very slightly) is the omission of the epilogue that closed the film. But the subtle and, ultimately, triumphant way the stage version ends the show is still a powerful, emotionally satisfying visual that will likely even have some reaching for tissues (I know I did).
The way BILLY ELLIOT conjures searing emotional responses from the audience is exactly why this musical—flaws and all—is as entertaining as it is. At the heart of this musical's tale is a self-esteem booster for anyone (no matter how young or old they are) who has ever been told to just repress what others might find odd, yet choose to forge ahead and march to the beat of a "different" drummer. If only everyone's harmless quirks—which in Billy's case is actually an undeniable talent for ballet—can be elevated to the surface instead of being shamefully buried underground like the coal these miners harvest for their livelihoods. I bet we'd all be so much happier if we did.
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Photos by Kyle Froman. Top: Billy (Ty Forhan) demonstrates his natural skills for Mrs. Wilkinson (Leah Hocking) and a fellow ballet student (Annelise Ritacca). Middle: Billy (Forhan) takes a giant leap as Mr Braithwaite (Patrick Wetzel) braces his piano. Bottom: Mrs. Wilkinson (Hocking) demonstrates what makes a star shine.
Performances of the National Tour of BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL at the Pantages Theatre continue through May 13, 2012 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. There will be a day-of-show lottery for a limited number of $25 seats per performance (held 2 1/2 hours before showtime, cash only, two tickets per person).
The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit www.BroadwayLA.org or the tour's web site at www.BillyElliotTour.com.